South by Southwest Turns Twenty

From a surprise gigs by the Flaming Lips to newcomers the Shys, hundreds of acts converge on Austin

March 20, 2006 1:11 PM ET

This year's South by Southwest Music Festival may have been overshadowed by interludes of pouring rain, but spirits remained undampened thanks to a slew of diverse acts -- from Morrissey at the Austin Music Hall to the rebirth of the Libertines (as Dirty Pretty Things) to a much-hyped public chat with rock legend Neil Young. Pushing through the event's largest crowds ever -- more than 10,000 -- here are some highlights, big and small, from the industry's most exhaustive and exhausting event.

Best Sure-Shot Surprise: The Beastie Boys
Once the Beasties quipped their way through an "audience interview" on the first day of the conference, rumors were rampant (confirmed by some loose-lipped venue security) that the New York crew would be hitting Stubb's. As night fell and cell phone cameras were raised, the Beasties did indeed rock the mic -- with classics from "Brass Monkey" to "Sure Shot" and the crowd-quaking "Body Movin'."

Best Spectacle: The Flaming Lips
Not scheduled to play, Wayne Coyne and Co. made their presence known shortly before the second of two secret gigs by leading a parade down 6th Street from the inside of Coyne's signature human-size plastic bubble. The Mardi Gras-style atmosphere only continued inside Eternal, when the Lips opened their set with a cover of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" as inflatable balls and confetti rained down on all.

Best Scene-Stealers: Dirty Pretty Things
Few people would attempt to top Coyne's parade-cum-party, and fewer still could succeed. Enter ex-Libertine Carl Barat and his ferociously handsome band of Brits (and a guitar-slinging Yank). Not only did they slam the audience with urgent guitar lines and slick licks, but they played so hard, it took the Texas police to stop their set. The cops unplugged the boys during their sixth song and, the band would later claim, dragged them away from the stage.

Best Sing-Along: Snow Patrol
Though the Irish four-piece managed to pack the house at Stubb's BBQ the evening before, it was the group's unannounced daytime set at the Filter Party at Cedar Creek Courtyard on Saturday that won everyone over. Performing "Run" beneath draping vines, frontman Gary Lightbody and crew managed to get an audience of 300 -- and another 100 spilling out on the street -- singing in harmony a cappella, just as the skies broke open to finally give up some sun.

Best Kiss-Ups: Towers of London
They have the hair of Motley Crue, the hygiene of Shane McGowan and rock that still leaves something to be desired. But when singer Donny Tourette wants your attention, man does he get it. He got ours by licking our face in the street outside Emo's like a dog. Thank goodness our rabies shots were up to date.

Best Secret Gig That Wasn't: Neil Young
He gave a conference speech and, according to sources, left almost immediately for Europe. Shame no one told us this when we wasted two hours outside of Buffalo Springfield man Richie Furay's set getting sunburned only to find out we'd been duped. Let's just give extra props to the Flaming Lips.

Best Alternative to Jet: the Shys
It seemed only appropriate that several other young bands appeared in the crowd for the Shys' set at Club de Ville. Not only are Southern California's Shys better-looking than most -- frontman Kyle Krone is like a prettier Conor Oberst -- but they tear up the stage with their fuzzed-up super-rock like the Who in the early days.

Best Names for New Buzz Bands: Sydney's Dapple Cities Fly, London's Rumble Strips, Manchester's Polytechnic

Best Side Project: Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders
Intense, progressive and prone to jammy indulgence, Foo Fighters drummer Hawkins sang from behind the kit and yucked it up with the audience. Charming song intros included, "This is like a dance song for German people," and "This is my stab at some really good, pretentious rock."

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